Let's imagine a world in which Pennsylvania's voter-ID law did not disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. The law, which requires voters show government-issued identification in order to vote, has created significant burdens for voters without IDs, a population disproportionately made up of poor people and minorities. In our imaginary world, the state would do a stellar job of educating voters, reaching out to African Americans—who disproportionately lack state IDs—and Spanish-language media. They would send postcards as early as possible to tell every voter in the state about the change. A "card of last resort" would be available to any voter who could not easily access the required documents for a standard ID, which include a birth certificate and a Social Security card.
Voter ID laws create an unnecessary barrier to voting that disproportionately affects poor and nonwhite voters. If you’re going to have them, you should at least tell people that they're going into effect. But given the impetus of these laws—to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters—it's no surprise that few of the states that have passed them have made any effort to educate voters.
The Murfreesboro Muslim community has been through hell. After the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque controversy in New York—a fight over a building that was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero—Tennessee experienced its own wave of anti-Islamic fervor. While Muslim families have worshiped at a mosque in Murfreesboro for over 30 years, news that the county had granted permission for a new, bigger Islamic Center incurred the unexpected wrath of the community. The construction site was vandalized, then set on fire. Residents sued to halt its construction, claiming that Islam wasn't a real religion but rather a cult. In May, a local judge granted an injunction against the center on the grounds that the county failed to give sufficient public notice of the meeting in which the plans were approved. While the county had used the same practices and advertisements for all meetings, the judge decided this one need to have more notice because so many people had strong opinions.
When news broke Sunday that an armed Neo-Nazi walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire on the congregation, killing six people and wounding three, I was flooded with memories of the Hindu temple I attended as a child. Donning traditional Indian garb, each Sunday the predominantly South Asian congregation would gather on the ground floor of a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The scent of incense and flowers filled the sparsely decorated room as the organ played devotional music. Congregants would meditate, eyes closed, while waiting for the Swami to arrive and give his lecture. I cannot fathom violence in a space of such serenity and peace.
The Sikh temple shooting, which left seven dead including the shooter, has left me feeling more shaky than the shooting in Colorado, which seemed more random.
I write that even though the skeleton of these stories is roughly the same. One man with a grudge takes semi-automatic weapons and opens fire at a public or semi-public event where people are gathered for some socially acknowledged purpose—education, work, politics, entertainment, worship. Some people die. Others are wounded. The gunman may or may not have the presence of mind to execute himself. Or he may choose to be martyred, putting himself in line for police to kill him.
This is going to sound crazy, but in Philadelphia, plenty of voting-rights activists are hoping plaintiffs lose their case against the state voter-ID law—at the lower court level, that is. Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, one of the most restrictive in the country, requires a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, and would disenfranchise a significant number of voters, particularly those who are poor, elderly, and nonwhite. It's a scary prospect, and the lawsuit brought by several voting-rights groups on behalf of ten plaintiffs seeks to get the law suspended. Closing arguments ended yesterday, and Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson has promised to rule on the measure by August 13.
Is President Obama a descendent of the first American slave? According to a team of geneologists, working with Ancestory.com, Obama is an 11th generation descendent of John Punch, an African indentured servant sentenced to slavery. Moreover, these roots come by way of his mother, a white Kansan whose roots contain at least one African forebearer. The New York Timesexplains:
Sometimes fearing the unknown isn't such a bad idea. Like, for instance, when they're serving "mystery meat" in the cafeteria. Or, on a slightly bigger scale, when your state is considering a new law that could disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.
"I voted" picture: (Flickr/ Vox Efx) Liberty Bell photograph: (Flickr/dcwriterdawn)
We get it. Real-life court dramas are not as exciting as Judge Judy (and definitely not as exciting as Judge Joe Brown). So we totally don't judge you for not knowing why the hell Pennsylvania's voter-ID law is suddenly in court.
Of course, you thought you'd covered your bases when you read our early explanation of voter-ID laws. (If you didn't, well, you only need to be a little embarrassed.) You know there's basically no evidence of in-person voter fraud where one person impersonates another—the only type of fraud voter ID guards against. You know that the big fights were in Texas and South Carolina. So why is everyone so worked up about some court case in Harrisburg?
Well let us be quick and leave you plenty of time for Court TV.
So a bunch of states have voter-ID laws—what's the big deal about Pennsylvania?
Well, not shockingly in a presidential election year, a lot of it boils down to politics. Pennsylvania is a swing state in a close election, so every vote each side can pull counts big. Most people believe voter-ID laws help Republicans win elections, because poor and nonwhite voters tend to vote Democratic and also tend to be the populations less likely to have the necessary ID. In case there was any doubt about those intentions, the state House majority leader told an audience that passing voter ID was "going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." (He evidently didn't get the whole memo about pretending we need this to combat nonexistent voter fraud.)
Yesterday, Eric Holder opened a new front in his fight to preserve voting rights, as the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The attorney general has been an outspoken critic of the strict new laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification, calling them the equivalent of a modern-day "poll tax." The DOJ has blocked implementation of voter ID in Texas and South Carolina—states that, because of their histories of voter suppression, are listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore must get preclearance from the DOJ before they can change their election laws.
If Americans don't believe that elections are conducted fairly, or believe that the person who takes office didn't actually win, the implications for the country are pretty scary. But according to one recent survey, distrust in election outcomes is startlingly widespread—and growing.